The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Self Portrait: The Eyes Within

William Mitchell (Whittles Publishing, 300pp, £35.00)

Reviewed by Richard Brook

Born in 1925, William (Bill) Mitchell has truly lived his 89 years, and this well-illustrated autobiographical account will be of great interest to many C20 members. His public murals and sculptures – in concrete and other innovative materials – have received increasing attention in recent years, and a number have been listed, including the Minute Men sculptures at Salford University, the relief panels outside the former Three Tuns pub in Coventry city centre, and – perhaps most spectacular – the huge structural wall at the former HQ of the Lee Valley Water Company in Hatfield. This is five metres high, and the site’s redeveloper is currently trying to work out how to relocate it!

This book, then, concerns Bill’s life story as well as his art, and anyone who heard him speak at the RIBA recently will know that he has a story (or two) to tell. Across 32 bite-sized and highly digestible chapters, Bill unfolds his tale of circumstance and fortune, beginning with his early childhood, through his schooling and time in the Arctic as a Navy radar operator. Despite his obvious talent, Bill’s aim here is not to celebrate himself as an artist, but rather to communicate the beauty of happenstance and the value of grasping opportunity – lessons easy to forget in our ordered and audited present. His account spans 86 years and is expansive in both its content and geography. The Second World War features, as does time in Russia, Australia, America, the Middle East and Europe. His industrious nature is apparent, and as a reader you sometimes feel there are yet further untold anecdotes behind his lively prose.

He studied at the RCA and the British School in Rome, though he was politely invited to leave the latter. However, this was not your usual expulsion, as he left with letters of invitation that led him to experience with Pierre Luigi Nervi, Gio Ponti and Pininfarina, the first names on a roll-call of mid-century architects and designers with whom he would collaborate.

His work for the London County Council Architects’ Department, realised in the midst of construction contracts and eventually embedded physically within the process of building, set the tone for much of his practice in Britain in the 1950s and 60s, and he explains the methods and materials employed in the context of severe time and financial constraints. At first, his budget was about the same as the cost of a coat of paint, and he had just two days to complete a job. He describes pragmatically how he kept within these limits by sand-blasting and rapid carving into wet plaster and cement to create instant relief sculptures. But he rarely offers detailed critical reflection on his practice, leaving that to the reader.

This is a timely book about an area of art that is rapidly disappearing just as it achieves its first cultural appraisal. Such commercial work, embedded in the fabric of buildings, ring-roads and subways, was not especially well-regarded in traditional art circles, and the ground-breaking techniques he used were more celebrated than the product – a fact demonstrated by his appearance on Tomorrow’s World.

Of course, we now have a critical context for technological art, and, seen through this lens, his actuated illuminated façade for Manchester’s Sunley Tower seems pioneering and prophetic. But the main reason to buy this book is not to marvel at his innovation; it is to feel the energy of William Mitchell the man – in his words, and in this order, ‘the designer, sculptor, artist’ – and the unfettered novelty of the creative interventions he has conceived.